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I already covered this in my first impressions article a couple of weeks ago, but Stellaris is Paradox Development Studio's first non-historical title, and it's instead a grand strategy game that is set in the vast frontier of space. It's also supposedly their most accessible title to date, though it's still an overwhelming title in its own right for a beginner.
I was wrong on many counts. Stellaris' systems are overexplained and yet not explained very well, in my defense, but I still outright overvalued resources such as influence and ignored some interesting tactics. That said, after spending many more hours with the game, my gripes still remain. And even the developers know that and have already announced patches that will change the games based on player feedback.
As a result, I'm stuck in a position where I'm giving an opinion on a game as it is now, knowing very well that this review might feel very dated in a few months. This is still a review, then, but I will also make an effort to note where I think the developers are going in the right direction with their recent outlined changes and where I think they're missing the mark.
As a note, I will generally avoid repeating gameplay explanations I've already offered in my first impressions article, unless I feel the need to correct a previous statement.
Beginnings of an Empire
While an important part of Paradox's games is dealing with other empires and political allies and enemies in the world, Stellaris starts with your empire (which can be customized as much or as little as you want) alone in space, right after having discovered FTL technology. It's worth mentioning that there are only two victory conditions to Stellaris. You're expected to either crush all the other independent empires or colonize 40% of the habitable planets in the galaxy. However, because when you start you have yet to make contact with other empires, and because you'll need resources to build a good fleet, the obvious early game strategy is to build mining and research stations around asteroids and planets and colonize as much as possible.
Gameplay in Stellaris moves in real time, with a number of different options for speed that can be changed on the fly, so the early game can be over relatively fast. This is a good thing, because, especially on repeated playthroughs, it can occasionally feel light on decisions. Aside from setting up stations and colonizing planets, at this point in the game the player will also be managing those colonized planets, building up a fleet to manage the occasional threat coming from aliens and automated ships across the galaxy, and researching new technologies for your empire.
Planet management clearly received a great deal of attention and care from the developers. Each planet is divided in a number of tiles, some of which spontaneously generate resources such as minerals or energy credits, and it's possible to create new buildings on top of them to obtain even more resources or other benefits such as an increased empire-wide cap on the resource. To extract those resources, however, it will be necessary to assign a pop to any of these tiles.
Pops grow naturally in any planet and represent a specific part of the population of the empire. They cover a single species and initially follow the ethics of that species very closely, but they can eventually diverge from that. The happiness of a pop determines its efficiency, and factors such as planet-wide famines, divergencies in ethics between the pop and the empire's policies, and even the planet's own habitality conditions will influence the pop's happiness.
It's a rather involved system that rarely feels difficult to negotiate with, especially because the game is set up so that you will almost never have to directly manage more than a few planets. There's a cap on how many planets can be directly controlled, and the game inflicts heavy penalties on an empire that goes beyond them.
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